Leadership and Life Lessons from herding cattle

Back in the day the biggest investment a man could make was in cattle, land ownership was a given. As soon as you married, it was a natural expectation for one to buy cattle and start growing the herd. Cattle ownership was a big symbol of wealth. After marrying, tradition dictated that one’s father was tasked with the responsibility of allocating his son, a piece of farmland.

I grew up wedged between two cultures mainly influenced by urban Harare and rural Chivhu in Chikomba, which meant I was much exposed to a broader and bigger view of things. Urban Harare provided me with the much needed exposure to the modern life, whilst rural Chikomba kept me grounded.
As young boys we would go into the mountains to herd cattle with my cousins. We would traverse over  long journeys in search of the greener pastures, literally. Back then it was all fun, no one took notes, however fast forward to the future, I reflect on the great things I learnt, yet I did not realize it then.
1. Be smart, don’t do all the work – one thing we always did was to ensure whenever we would go out to herd cattle we would go out in teams, this would ensure we took turns to keep the herd in check. We called this mazoro or madzoro. The work done by each herder would be significantly reduced. Naturally leaders would emerge.
Lesson –  As a leader be aware of what is going on, but do not spend too much time in operational activities, delegate. Be smart enough to know that if you centralize everything on your desk, you will always be overworked and have little time to do what is important to drive the organisation forward.
2. Be in control – Herding cattle, meant we had to ensure our cattle would not stray into someone’s farm. The easiest way to keep your herd in check was to ensure you get your herd to the greenest pastures; secondly we would ensure there was always water in sight. Above all we had to always keep in mind why we were out there in the woods. Whilst we had time to hunt and swim and do all other extra activities, we would always ensure that whilst doing everything else our eyes were kept on the herd.
Lesson – Often in organisations, process becomes the goal, whereas process is a means to achieving something. Leaders often lose control whilst trying to control everything. The easiest way to control and lead your organisation is to lead them to a place of shared values and shared objectives. Whilst the cattle grazed, we would have time to hunt and swim, only because the cattle would be preoccupied with grazing.
3. Do not carry too much baggage – Whenever we would go out herding, we would split our livestock into groups. It was often important to leave the younger boys in charge of the goats, whilst we handled the cattle. Having a mix of goats, cattle and sheep had its advantages at times, but one challenge we would often encounter was that whenever it would rain, goats because of their allergy to water, would separate themselves from the herd and become difficult to control. Not carrying much baggage allowed us to focus on a few manageable activities.
Lesson – Whilst multitasking is important, it’s much more important to excel in servicing your key markets . Leadership is about that, it is about setting out priorities.
4. Timing is as important as knowing the way – milking cows required timing and strategy. If you wanted to get more milk from your cows there were two things you had to do (a) ensure the cow is properly fed and (b) separate the cow from its calf until after you are done milking. This strategy was more of a carrot and stick strategy, feeding your cows well would ensure even after you milk there would still be enough milk for the calf. Separating the calf meant, you would get the best milk out of the cow first. Timing also allowed us to know when to go out deep into the woods or when to stay close to the village. We had means of telling and predicting the weather. When expecting a stormy weather we would herd around the village and avoid going far.
Lesson – A good thing done at the wrong time can become a bad thing. Avoid going too far ahead otherwise you lose your market. Avoid being trapped too far behind, because your market will move ahead without you.
5. Know your territory – herding cattle is about strategy. We would not venture into an unknown territory unless if we had some information about the area. Information such as availability of water, availability of grazing land and whether there were any farms nearby. It was also important to know who owned the farms if there were any around. There were some farm owners who were known to severely beat young herd boys if ever they came across them herding their cattle close to their farms.
Lesson – Exposure and experience are priceless. If you are not yet experienced, seek exposure, continue to seek it, even after you are experienced. Leaders learn always, the minute you stop learning you stop growing.